ANAHEIM, Calif. — Throughout the Arizona Wildcats’ school-record unbeaten start and eight-week ride atop the Top 25 polls, Nick Johnson was always the guy a struggling teammate could turn to.
You know, for an encouraging word. A slap on the back. Some perspective. Maybe even a laugh.
So Thursday, during a 70-64 win over San Diego State in the NCAA tournament that put Arizona in its second Elite Eight over the past four seasons, the Wildcats returned the favor.
Johnson missed his first 10 field goal attempts, and as a partial result, the Wildcats trailed 40-32 with 16:41 left to go, with the aggressive Aztecs willing their way to a potential Elite Eight.
But the Wildcats made sure that storyline changed.
“Honestly, I tried to tell him to just keep with it, it’s a long game,” forward Brandon Ashley said, that “there’s a lot of time for you to play the game you want to. I just said `Don’t try to force anything and try to let the game come to you. And it did.”
Ashley, who was an active participant on the bench despite his season-ending foot injury, was hardly the only one to offer a word or two to the Wildcats’ leader.
“The whole team really was talking to me throughout the whole game, my brother and Jaydee (Luster, UA graduate manager and former Wyoming guard), talked to me a lot, because he was the one guy I’ve really worked with a lot,” Johnson said.
“They were just trying to talk to me and calm me down, saying I’m Pac-12 Player of the Year so have confidence.”
Johnson recovered with an astounding 15 points in the final 2:44, hitting 10 of 10 free throws to keep the Aztecs from ever retaking the lead in the final minutes.
But initially, it didn’t seem like an easy sell.
Johnson appeared not only short of confidence during the first 30 minutes of the game but also short of luck, with his 10th try circling around the hoop before rimming out.
“I just smiled,” Johnson said of that 10th miss. “Really, a few of those plays I just had to smile because I did pretty much all I could do to get it in there and it didn’t happen. It was just staying with it.”
But things changed quickly once Gabe York took a steal by T.J. McConnell, then raced down court and fed it to a Johnson, who went inside for an easy layup.
York called McConnell’s steal the play of the game, and not just because it gave UA its biggest lead to that point, 56-51. Because it was the perfect set-up to change Johnson’s mentality, more than even words could.
Some 52 seconds after he made the layup Johnson squared up for a three-pointer and sank it to give UA a 59-53 lead, much to the giddy relief of a UA crowd that actually appeared slightly in the minority among all the black-shirted Aztec fans.
Then Johnson hit both ends of a one-and-one with 1:31 left, giving UA a 61-53 lead, and went 8 for 8 from the line over the final 1:05.
That made Johnson 10 for 10 from the line in the final 91 seconds, blowing away even his 6-for-6 performance from the line in the final 24 seconds of UA’s 72-70 comeback win at Michigan on Dec. 14.
“Gabe got me that easy shot on the layup, and from there I felt comfortable,” Johnson said.
But that was easier said than done, really. First off, UA coach Sean Miller said, the three-pointer came when San Diego State had reverted to a 1-3-1 zone defense that could have thrown the Wildcats off.
Second, well, he was oh-fer for most of the game. He could have finished 1 for 14 as he did in UA’s Feb. 1 loss at Cal. But he didn’t.
“Nick has to make that shot,” Miller said. “Early in his career, like all young players, it’s not easy to put a bad first half behind you and come up big at the end. But between his free-throw shooting and that three-point shot, it’s amazing for a kid to be able to do that after not making shots for about 25, 30 minutes.”
While Johnson was warming up, it was also just as critical that the Wildcats were equaling San Diego State on the rebounding glass. In the first half, SDSU’s Josh Davis and the Aztecs willed themselves a 32-28 lead at halftime by beating the Wildcats up on the glass during a predictably defensive slugfest.
Davis, the transfer from Tulane that Arizona briefly tried to recruit last spring, had 11 rebounds while the Aztecs out-rebounded the Wildcats 24-14 overall in the half. San Diego State had eight second-chance points off its 10 offensive rebounds before halftime while the Wildcats had none.
“He was just killing us,” York said of Davis. “He’s a fifth-year senior and you could tell he didn’t want his career to end. We just had to match his fire.”
Those, however, are of course the kind of words Arizona forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson loves to hear. Hollis-Jefferson came off the bench for 15 points and six rebounds, drawing fouls that took him to the line, where he shimmied his way to 7-of-8 free throw shooting.
“That’s just what I do,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “That’s what the team needs from me.”
Together it was enough that UA moved to 33-4 overall and into a West Region final with Wisconsin (29-7) on Saturday at 5:49 p.m. at Honda Center.
That turnaround to Saturday’s big opportunity, quickly turned Miller’s focus and that, he hopes, of the Wildcats.
“Part of being successful in this next game is not to make the game we just played that big,” Miller said. “We won. We’re excited. But to turn around so quick … I think that’s our question to put this behind us and play for a Final Four berth.”